On the heels of months of favorable publicity for the DesertXpress steel-wheel HSR project, crystallized by Senator Harry Reid's shift of support away from maglev and toward DesertXpress, the backers of the SoCal-Vegas maglev project have countered with a op-ed in the Las Vegas Review-Journal by Richann Bender, executive director of the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission, criticizing DesertXpress's claims and arguing that maglev hasn't been given a fair shake:
Construction on the first segment of the maglev train -- the fastest train in the world -- can begin in 2010 and would be built entirely in Nevada by hard-working Nevadans.
The backers of the high-speed, conventional-rail DesertXpress would like to "reprogram" this guaranteed $45 million away from Nevada, and instead expect us all to just wait five years for their privately owned train to nowhere to get taxpayer-backed loans. This is not in the best near-term or long-term interests of Nevada jobs or Nevada's economy.
Bender isn't starting off on a good note. The op-ed suggests that the maglev project is really about connecting Las Vegas to a proposed airport site at Primm (along the CA/NV border), undermining the claimed benefits of a train to bring people from Southern California to Las Vegas.
Worse in my mind is Bender's embrace of the deeply misleading anti-rail frame of a "train to nowhere." In fact, it was the Vegas maglev project that led Congressional Republicans to adopt that term during the February debate over the stimulus. While I can understand Bender's desire to undermine the rival DesertXpress project, employing this kind of framing is a monumentally stupid move, for it will merely fuel its usage - which will come back and bite the maglev project, especially when they go to Congress looking for more funding. I don't like to use the disparaging "gadgetbahn" term that is sometimes used to attack maglev, partly because I don't like using phrases and frames that are designed to serve an anti-rail agenda.
Bender lists some other claimed advantages of maglev - it's faster; it's a success in Shanghai; and:
Maglev is also greener than traditional forms of ground and air transportation, and unlike DesertXpress, it complies with all state and local land use and environmental regulations.
I would be curious to see substantiation of this claim. Obviously it's difficult to provide in-depth evidence in a short newspaper op-ed, but that kind of charge does need supporting evidence.
The heart of the op-ed are three points designed to raise fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about the DesertXpress project: lack of connectivity to SoCal urban centers, costs, and public funding. First up is the issue of the route:
The maglev project also addresses the primary reason for constructing a high-speed rail system: congestion on Interstate 15 throughout the region, connecting Las Vegas to the heart of the population and business centers in the Southern California Basin.
DesertXpress' proposed ending of Victorville, Calif., falls well outside of congested highway areas.
This isn't a fair criticism for two reasons. Number one is that ending at Victorville actually does include many of the primary congested highway areas on the trip to Vegas - where Interstate 15 narrows north of Victorville is where most of the traffic delays on the trip to Vegas commence. So a terminus of Victorville would do much to avoid most of the worst congestion, even if the rest of the journey into the SoCal metroplex won't yet be covered by DesertXpress.
But that journey could well be completed if DesertXpress built an extension westward across mostly empty desert to link up with the California HSR project at Palmdale. This has been discussed by the two projects, and while it would be fair to criticize this as being no guarantee at all of a future connection, neither is it right to exclude that possibility.
Next up is cost:
Second, maglev costs about the same as traditional high-speed, steel-wheel-on-rail trains. DesertXpress supporters have repeatedly cited a nonexistent $40 billion price tag as a reason for not building the maglev project. A March 2009 Government Accountability Office report lists the true estimated cost of the Las Vegas to Anaheim maglev project as $12.1 billion.
In fact, the Federal Railroad Administration also estimates the cost of traditional high-speed, steel-wheel-on-rail trains at $30 million to $50 million per mile, which would mean DesertXpress could cost up to $9 billion for the Las Vegas-to-Victorville route (far more than the $4 billion reported on the organization's Web site). If you put the two projects side by side, this puts maglev in the same cost per mile range.
There's been a lot of debate about the FRA's cost estimates. Certainly any project built in the desert between Victorville and Vegas would be on the low end of those estimates (once you go from Victorville into the SoCal megalopolis those costs will rise significantly). But maglev's history on costs is just not favorable. Consider the fate of Munich's maglev:
Plans to build a magnetic levitation train from the center of Munich to the airport were trashed on Thursday after construction costs almost doubled from €1.85 billion ($2.90 billion US) to €3.4 billion ($5.33 billion US). This is a major disappointment to Siemens, the company who exported the maglev to Shanghai, China, but cannot build a commercial maglev system within its home country.
And the Shanghai maglev has had ridership problems - running trains that are 80% empty, unable to recoup any part of the enormous construction costs.
Part of the problem in Shanghai was that the maglev system route isn't ideal - it doesn't connect the highly traveled corridors. This would seem to be a problem with the proposed Vegas maglev route. As noted above, the initial segment would run from Primm to Vegas - not exactly a high-traffic route. If/when a new airport is built there to relieve McCarran, then perhaps there will be high ridership on this maglev route. But without firm plans to build the entire line from Vegas to Anaheim, it is still much too likely that the costs on this first segment will balloon and kill the rest of the route, leaving Nevada with something of a white elephant.
Finally there is the issue of public funding:
Third, and perhaps most important, from the beginning maglev has made clear that it intends to use a combination of both private capital and government funding. To date, no high-speed rail project in the United States has been constructed solely with private capital.
This didn't stop DesertXpress from actively selling the idea of a privately funded train. In fact, advocates of DesertXpress have for years cited the "private" element as one of the primary reasons their project deserves support.
As recently reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, however, their focus has now shifted to seeking taxpayer funded federal loans to cover the majority of financing for the project.
I never thought it was good or beneficial that DesertXpress made a virtue of being privately funded, given the extreme unlikelihood that they would be able to keep that promise. That being said, the reason Bender mentioned this is to sow doubt about DesertXpress's claims and plans. There's nothing wrong with seeking federal funding for HSR or maglev, but the mere fact that DesertXpress has shifted its plans doesn't imply any inherent problem with their project.
It's a typical line of attack for critics of passenger rail - anytime the details change, they use that change as supposed evidence that the project is not viable, is being mismanaged, should not be trusted, etc. As with the "train to nowhere" frame, Bender is playing with fire here, especially since the op-ed hasn't offered any actual reasons or explanation as to why DesertXpress made the shift.
It's a shift that makes sense. It's become much more difficult to raise billions in private capital for anything, as banks hoard their funds and as the recession continues to deepen. That's not the same as being impossible to raise those funds, and private investors are much more willing to get involved with something that has federal financial involvement, as will the California HSR project. A good project with sound management will change parts of their plan when conditions warrant, instead of plowing ahead with an obsolete model. DesertXpress's shift is in itself not a bad thing, and shouldn't be taken as such.
I can understand why the Vegas maglev project feels the need to strike back at the DesertXpress project, which has all the momentum these days. Maglev backers have a much tougher case to make, particularly on the cost angle, and they are in very real danger of seeing their project fall apart. I'm all for a close comparison of the two plans to link California to Nevada, and all for criticism when the evidence supports it.
But Richann Bender and the Vegas maglev project haven't made that case here. Instead they have used anti-rail arguments to undermine a rival without offering solid evidence to back up their claims. It's an unfortunate and desperate move that isn't necessary and isn't welcome.